NAGANO – The eruption of Mount Ontake has left 16 missing and 47 dead so far, but phone calls and other records indicate the numbers are likely to grow, Nagano prefectural officials said Friday.
After examining records assembled by police, firefighters and town officials, including missing persons reports and, in some cases, testimony from hikers who survived but have been unable to find their climbing companions, the true toll from the disaster is set to climb.
Police said earlier that 46 of the 47 victims were bludgeoned to death by falling rocks ejected by the eruption and the other victim died of burns, although no magma was observed.
On Friday, rain again forced the suspension of search and rescue operations on the 3,067-meter volcano, which straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures.
The search teams were drawn from the Nagano Prefectural Police, firefighters and Ground Self-Defense Forces.
Rescuers are bringing the bodies off the mountain by helicopter and had recovered 47 by Wednesday.
In Japan’s most deadly volcanic eruption in modern history, the top of Mount Ontake blew shortly before noon last Saturday, just when many hikers had reached the summit and were enjoying lunch in the autumn sunshine, enjoying clear views of the Northern Alps. Fall is the mountain’s busiest climbing season.
Day after day, bad weather has hampered the search for survivors and bodies, which may now lie beneath 30 cm or more of ash.
And with a typhoon approaching early next week, the searchers might soon face the risk of ash-laden mudslides triggered by heavy rain. The layers of ash and freshly fallen rocks will make for unstable trekking as well.
The Meteorological Agency projected heavy rain overnight, with up to 30 mm falling in Nagano by 6 a.m. Saturday and 40 mm in parts of adjacent Gifu.
The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry warned that mudslides near Mount Ontake could cause the rivers below to flood, but said the areas most at risk are uninhabited.
The town of Kiso, Nagano Prefecture, said it would evacuate residents at risk of landslides if a warning for heavy rain is issued.
On Thursday, search activities were halted shortly before noon by rain, while previous forays were stopped by volcanic tremors and toxic gas.
Ontake’s last major eruption was in 1979. It had minor eruption in 1991 and multiple volcanic tremors in 2007.